While it is true that the world has
clocked more than 100 years of
recorded music, it was not until the
1950s when drums became louder
and prouder on most of the records
that dominated the pop charts. I say,
“What took so long?” The people
have spoken, and they want the beat!
And if you’re tackling a project in your
home studio, it’s going to be up to the
drummer and the engineer to ensure
the people get their groove on.
One way to accomplish this is to
deliver a drum sound that catches
listeners’ ears and intensifies rhythmic
impact. Getting there means
you’ll have to be versatile, flexible,
and up to the task of pulling different
sounds from the one kit your drummer
probably brought to the session.
Let’s say the drummer is using a
standard, five-piece set consisting of
a 22"x16" kick drum, a 14"x5.5" snare,
a 12"x8" rack tom, a 13"x9" rack toms,
and a 16"x16" floor tom. For cymbals,
he has 14" high-hats, a 22" ride, and
18" and 19" crashes.
Now, sure—size matters. But like
they say, it’s all in the way you use it. I
have heard small kits sound as big as
a house, and giant kits sound like a
pencil tapping a piece of paper. Our
reference kit is smack dab in the middle
of the small kit/big kit range.
So how do we get five completely
different sounds out of this setup?
First, you need to deal with tuning the
drums. Knowing how to tune drums is
as important as knowing how to play. If
the sound isn’t right coming off the
drum, it will be a lot harder to get the
sound you want, and no microphone or
signal processing can magically compensate
for poorly tuned drums. On the
upside, a single drum can produce an
amazing array of sounds to compliment
whatever style the music demands.
So don’t be afraid to experiment with
different tunings until you find the
one that knocks you out.
In addition, what you use to bang
the drums also affects tone. Fill your
stick bag with different-sized sticks, as
well as some brushes, Blasticks, and
rods that will deliver variations of percussive
and tonal response from the kit.
Now, here are the recipes for
those five drums sounds. . . .
Let’s begin with an approach that is
sparse and quick to set up, and one that
you’ve heard on a ton of hit records. As
this setup utilizes only four microphones,
it does require a player with finesse,
as well as a room that has a smooth,
balanced ambience. Dynamics are
key, so work with the drums (and
drummer) until they produce a consistent
volume level, and listen
closely to the drums/cymbals ratio to
ensure the relationships are pretty even.
Kick drum. Set a large-diaphragm
dynamic mic a few inches from the front
head. For more boom, point the mic at
the middle of the head. For more punch,
offset the mic about 60 to 75 degrees.
Snare. Point a trusty Shure SM57
(or similar dynamic mic) right at the
head, and away from the hi-hat.
Overhead one. Position a largediaphragm
condenser (set to its cardioid
pattern) about three feet above
the kit, pointing at the rack toms
Overhead two. Place a largediaphragm
condenser (set to its cardioid
pattern) about six feet above
the floor tom, and facing the hi-hat
across the snare.
Dry As a Bone
For this popular sound that originated
in the ’70’s, set up the drums in a
small, dead-sounding room with low
ceilings. This environment will effectively
capture a tight and percussive
drum sound with minimal amounts of
room artifacts such as “ringing” or
odd slapback echoes. Remove the
front head from the bass drum, as
well as the bottom heads from all of
the toms. Dampen the snare and tom
heads until they “thud,” cutting down
on clear notes and ring. You can
make like the Beatles and employ tea
towels to deaden the drums, or you
can simply gaffer’s tape some paper
towels to the offending heads. Fill the
kick drum with pillows or dirty
clothes—just enough so that the
attack is tight. Loosening the heads
can further deaden the sound.
Kick drum. Put an Electro-Voice
RE-20, an AKG D-12, a Sennhesier
MD421, or similar large-diaphragm
dynamic inside the drum. Cover the
front of the kick drum with a piano
blanket (or any thick, large blanket)
to control signal leakage.
Snare. Position a Shure SM57 or
Beta 57A close to the head, and
angled away from the hi-hat.
Toms. Place large-diaphragm condensers
about 2" from the heads.
Overheads. Position a matched
pair of small-diaphragm condensers
left and right, aimed at the cymbals.
Hi-hat. Place a small-diaphragm
condenser 3" or 4" from the hi-hat to
get a more “direct” sound than the
ambient hi-hat sound that will be
picked up by the overhead mics.
Room to Breathe
This is a “roomier” sound that can be
achieved with the same mics used for
the dry sound. First, replace all the
bottom drum heads on the toms and
the front head on the kick drum. Cut
a 3" or 4" hole in the kick-drum head
slightly lower than the middle of the head, and off to one side. You’ll need
to retune the drums to taste—I recommend
letting the tone open up so
that the drums sing as well as bang.
Some dampening may be needed on
the toms and snare, and if the resonance
or ring on the kick drum is too
much, remove the head, place a pillow
inside the shell, and then replace
the front head.
Now, move all of the mics about
an inch or two further away from
each drum. For the kick drum, position
the mic in front of the hole you
cut in the head at a distance of a
couple of inches. Experiment with
whether you like the sound produced
by positioning the mic straight-on, or
angled slightly away from the head.
Also keep in mind that a fair amount
of air is going to be rushing out of
that hole, so you may need to pad
the mic to avoid signal overhead or a
woofy sound. To intensify this openroom
perspective, place two largediaphragm
condensers in different
corners of the room. You can move
these two mics around to taste, listening
carefully to ensure you’re capturing
the sweet spots in the room
(where the combination of ambience
and source sound is thrilling), and
that you’re not introducing any
phase-cancellation problems that will
thin out the drum sound.
Boom Boom Room
Using the same mics and mic positions
employed for the previous
setup, open up the tuning, and let
the drums bark. Overtones and leakage
be damned as with this
approach—you want to prove the big
bang theory. Now, add a single
large-diaphragm condenser down a
hallway or in the next room—wherever
the sound can travel that will
produce a bright ambient timbre.
This is your “power mic.” At
mixdown, you’ll blend in this track to
introduce a huge and ungodly
cacophony to the overall drum
sound. Of course, when you’re
recording, make sure the drummer
beats the living daylights out of the
drums, and doesn’t get meek and
mild on you.
Separate But Equal
Now, let’s break all the rules, and try
recording one section of the drum kit
at a time. Pick the mics of your
choice and go nuts with the mic positions.
Yes, you are going to individually
record the kick, snare, toms, and
cymbals. Yes, your drummer may
freak out at being asked to play his
or her snare part independently, then
the kick part independently, then add
the tom figures independently, and
finally track the cymbal and hi-hat
parts. And, yes, this is a wild way to
go, but it has worked for many producers
and engineers—just check out
most of Jeff Lynne’s productions.
Obviously, this approach will take
longer to record, but the mixing possibilities